Monthly Archives: March 2016

Organizational forgetting

I wrote the following back in November 2005:

My early days in Knowledge Management included a lot of time developing, deploying, and getting people to use “knowledge repositories.” (At least trying to get people to use them.) A worthwhile endeavor in some regards, I’ve always had misgivings about the whole idea, at least how it has been implemented in most cases. The cheapness of mass storage these days, and the way we just keep everything, has nagged at this misgiving over the past couple of years.

I finally realized one day that the problem has become not, “How do we remember all this knowledge that we’ve learned?” but rather, “How do we forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

That post also included a reference to memory and forgetting in the human mind, taken from the book The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins:

Memory is a toxin, and its overretention – the constant replaying of the past – is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.

explored this idea a bit further in March 2007, where I added the following to my thinking:

In the context of mastery, especially of something new, it is sometimes hard to know when to forget what you’ve learned. You have to build up a solid foundation of basic knowledge, the things that have to be done. And at some point you start to build up tacit knowledge of what you are trying to master. And this, the tacit knowledge that goes into learning and mastery, is probably the hardest thing to learn how to forget.

Sometimes, though, it is critical to forget what you know so you can continue to improve.

And yet again in June 2009:

I’m at a point now, though, where the project is going through significant changes, almost to the point of being a “new” project. My dilemma: How to “forget” the parts of the old project that are no longer important and start with an “empty mind” to build up the new project without the baggage of the old.

In his book Brain Rules, author John Medina writes, “It’s easy to remember, and easy to forget, but figuring out what to remember and what to forget is not nearly so easy.”

I was reminded of this train of thought today when a colleague shared a link to a TEDx talk by Pablo Martin de Holan titled Managing Organizational Forgetting, based on a paper of the same name published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. If you read my quotes above, I’m sure you understand why this opening paragraph from the paper grabbed my attention (emphasis at the end is mine):

Over the last decade, companies have become increasingly aware of the value of managing their organizational knowledge, and researchers have investigated those processes extensively. Indeed, the ways in which organizations learn and have stocks of knowledge that underlie their capabilities can be a powerful tool in explaining the behavior and competitiveness of companies. Yet something is missing in the current discussions of organizational knowledge: Companies don’t just learn; they also forget.
Pablo Martin de Holan 

There is a lot of great info in the paper (about 12 pages worth), but for now I’ll just mention the two modes of forgetting – Accidental and Intentional. Obviously, you will want to limit the former and maximize the benefit of the latter. At the risk of a giant spoiler (you should still take the time to read the full paper), de Holan summarizes nicely:

Some companies forget the things they need to know, incurring huge costs to replace the lost knowledge. Other organizations can’t forget the things they should, and they remain trapped by the past, relying on uncompetitive technologies, dysfunctional corporate cultures or untenable assumptions about their markets. Successful companies instead are able to move quickly to adapt to rapidly changing environments by being skilled not only at learning, but also at forgetting. Indeed, as companies work to increase their capacity to learn they also need to develop a corresponding ability to forget. Otherwise, they could easily be learning counterproductive knowledge, such as bad habits. The bottom line is that companies need to manage their processes for forgetting as well as for learning, because only then can they deploy their organizational knowledge in the most effective ways for achieving sustained competitive advantage.

I really wish I had come across this paper back in Winter 2004 when it was published. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

And for those of you interested in the TEDx talk, here you go.

Organizations, organisms, and intelligence (some thoughts)

Some thoughts inspired by  The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing by Frank Vertosick, Jr., and other sources.

In the introduction to The Genius Within, Vertosick sets up the book with these comments:

To survive, all living beings must respond to an incessant barrage of stimuli: good, bad, and neutral. Some stimuli are so potently bad they provoke an immediate, reflexive response…. [M]ost hazards can’t be handled so simplistically. If I blindly leapt from every threat, I would soon exhaust myself. Moreover, some threats, such as a menacing animal, are better handled by walking slowly away.

Of course, even better would be to avoid running into menacing animals in the first place.

I couldn’t help thinking of this passage when I came across If it’s urgent, ignore it on McGee’s Musings (which in turn points to the original FastCompany article by Seth Godin and a posting about the article on Frank Patrick’s Focused Performance Weblog.) A couple of quick excerpts:

Urgent issues are easy to address. They are the ones that get everyone in the room for the final go-ahead. They are the ones we need to decide on right now, before it’s too late.

Smart organizations understand that important issues are the ones to deal with. If you focus on the important stuff, the urgent will take care of itself.

Organizations manage to justify draconian measures–laying people off, declaring bankruptcy, stiffing their suppliers, and closing stores–by pointing out the urgency of the situation. They refuse to make the difficult decisions when the difficult decisions are cheap. They don’t want to expend the effort to respond to their competition or fire the intransigent VP of development. Instead, they focus on the events that are urgent at that moment and let the important stuff slide.

Or in other words they are, to use Dr. Vertosick’s words, blindly leaping from every threat, and will soon exhaust themselves. This is another sign of a “stupid,” or in this case non-intelligent, organization.

A few more words on “intelligence” in organisms from Dr. Vertosick:

No creature can make it through life equipped solely with dumb reflexes. Reflexes alone do not constitute intelligence. Organisms must temper their reflexes with judgment, and that implies reason.

When reflex alone proves inadequate or counterproductive, living things resort to more subtle ways of dealing with environmental data. They begin by determining the predictive value of their experiences and storing those experiences for later application.

In other words, organisms learn from experience and apply this knowledge to future challenges. Learning is central to all intelligent behavior.

Since the organization that focuses on the urgent, instead of the important, is apparently not learning from the past, it stands to reason they are un-intelligent and doomed to an earlier demise than might otherwise occur if they could start learning. Unfortunately, this type of organization takes a lot of people, money, and other resources and capabilities down with it.*

* Of course, you can look at this as a kind of “circle of life” kind of thing, as most of those resources will eventually find their way back into the system. Unfortunately for the “human resources” involved, though, this will be a very unenjoyable process.

GM Var Akobian in simul match

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage… Uncertainty is far more challenging

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

Garry Kasparov – How Life Imitates Chess

The four stages of competence (aka mastery)

From Andrew in a conversation on Facebook (which you may or may not be able to see, sorry).

The four stages of competence that are often mentioned in my martial arts group:

  1. unconscious incompetence
  2. conscious incompetence
  3. conscious competence
  4. unconscious competence.

Mastery is achieved when you reach the fourth stage, unconscious competence.

There is debate in the field about whether consciousness even has efficacy

Related to yesterday’s post:

“There is debate in the field about whether consciousness even has efficacy,”

This neuroscientist is figuring out how to harness the enormous potential of the unconscious mind

We often react to a certain image or a certain word on a deeper level without having to engage the conscious parts of our brain, and it’s this kind of ‘power’ Eagleman is talking about in his research. It’s still at an early, unpublished stage, but it promises to uncover more about what goes on below the surface of our minds.

Have to admit, I thought much of this had already been hashed out before. Of course the subconscious (unconscious) mind plays a key part in our lives, more so than even the conscious mind.

On knowledge and (organizations as) knowers

Been giving some thought to the concept of knowledge and knowing in the context of organizations and knowledge management. These two paragraphs come from separate trains of thought, but are related so I decided to post them here together. Definitely needs a bit more reflection and development. What do you think?


The terms “tacit” and “explicit” are typically used when referring to different types of knowledge (in the context of knowledge management efforts). It seems to me that “unconscious” and “conscious” might be more appropriate / accurate? In that explicit knowledge is that of which you are consciously aware of while tacit knowledge is that which lies “below the surface” and which you use without having to be aware you are using it. Need to cross reference this with what I’ve been learning about Liminal Thinking….

On the subject of “knowers”, could the organization itself be considered a “knower”? Not the sum total of the knowledge that resides in its members or files, but a knowing that emerges from the connections and interactions of that knowledge. If so, how would that change how we approach KM?

New word (for me) – Tranche

A month or so ago I came across the word “tranche” in an article (or story or something). I consider myself well read with a decent sized vocabulary, but don’t recall ever having seen that particular word before that article. (Yes, I had to look it up.)

Since then I’ve seen or heard the word used once or twice a week in varying contexts. Wondering how I missed it all those years, and why it has suddenly started showing up everywhere.

Is it just me?

In the loop (the boss’s version)

When the context of “keep me in the loop” is between manager and managed, things might be a little different. After all, the whole purpose of a staff is to make sure that a boss has the information, knowledge, and insight she needs without being burdened with having to figure it out for herself. In a world of information flow built around the distribution of atoms, it made sense that the staff made the decisions on what the boss should see, based (of course) on what the boss said she wanted to see.

When information flow is based on bits, when working out loud is (can be) the norm, when the boss can see what she wants to see when she wants to see it instead of waiting for a meeting or the email with the monstrously huge PowerPoint file, she can keep herself in the loop.

Working out loud goes both ways; it is just as important for managers and leaders to understand how to work out loud as it is for their employees.

 

In the loop

“Keep me in the loop.”

This all too common expression is – or should be – the bane of anyone trying to implement, or just use, a community approach of working out loud for collaboration and communication. What it really means is…

I want to know what’s going on with your project, but I don’t care enough to actually spend my own time keeping up with what’s going, so please take time out of your own busy schedule and figure out what information I need to know and then make sure you get it to me. I may or may not bother to read it once you’ve sent it to me.

The next time someone asks you to “keep me in the loop”, let them know where the conversation is happening and offer to grant them access. If they don’t take you up on it, then they don’t really care. If they do take you up on it, they may never join in. But they might, and their participation will be that much more valuable because they are there intentionally, not accidentally.

This goes both ways. Next time someone talks to you about a project that you are interested in, don’t ask them to keep you in the loop. Instead, ask them, “How can I join the conversation?”